How a week at sleep school changed my life

sleep baby
sleep baby 

I’m sure I knew to expect sleep deprivation and stress, but the reality of having a baby who didn’t sleep was one of the most isolating and exhausting experiences of my life.

By the time my son Jamie was five months old, I was often woken on a half-hourly basis to placate him with his dummy. I resorted to sleeping on the floor beside his cot in attempt to squeeze in as many z’s as possible.

I tried every technique I could get my hands on, and many times juggled a baby in one hand and a book in the other as I put the latest alleged sleep solution into practice. The roller coaster of trying and repeatedly failing was soul destroying, and few people understood what I was going through.

Being first-time parents, my husband assumed this was part of the job, the responsibility of work sheltering him from the worst of the sleep deprivation. But as the Facebook statuses of my mummy friends began to brag of babies sleeping through the night, I started to lose hope and resigned myself to accepting this as my reality.

Severe sleep deprivation is a proven form of torture. For new mothers already riding a roller coaster of hormones, the physical and emotional affects can wreck havoc, and for me was the underlying reason behind my diagnosis with postnatal depression.

When I inevitably broke down in front of my child health nurse, she prescribed my solution: a referral to Ellen Barron Family Centre (EBFC).

EBFC is the light at the end of a very long tunnel for many weary parents of babies aged zero to three. The government-funded centre on Brisbane’s north side accepts 20 families a week from Queensland, Northern Territory and northern New South Wales. Referrals are triaged on a priority basis, and issues including feeding, behaviour and general parenting are addressed. Sleep, however, is by far the most common issue.  

Once settled in for our four-night stay I discussed our situation with my assigned child health nurse. I was educated on the cycles of sleep and those dreaded sleep associations - in my case, the dummy.

We decided that after an already long and emotional day, Jamie could have his afternoon nap with the dummy for one more time. Like clockwork, 20 minutes later my serial catnapper was awake, and his dummy was promptly thrown in the bin to avoid temptation.

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In new surroundings, the reassurance of our evening routine was a relief for us both. I kissed his dummy-free face, lay him in the cot and walked out the door. Not surprisingly he cried, but a nurse stayed with me to talk through the different cries we could expect to hear as Jamie settled himself to sleep.

Almost 10 minutes in, the telltale pauses began, signalling sleep wasn't far away. Suddenly there was silence. My relief was palpable - as was the disappointment when not even a minute later he started crying again. It eventually escalated, and the nurse suggested it might be a good idea to pop my head in. After some gentle patting and shooshing he was quiet again, and I slowly retreated. More crying followed - this time from me, too. But the nursing staff are great at distracting anxious mums, and I was almost oblivious to the silence when it came. I noted the time down on our progress chart: it had been 25 minutes.

Jamie woke three times that night. Each time the nurse and I would stand at his door and plot our strategy. Was that a tired cry? Did he just pause? A couple of times I quietly resettled him with a pat on the bottom, but I could tell already a shift had occurred.

The days at sleep school revolve around naps; babies are put to bed at the first sign of tiredness to give them the best chance at self-settling. Education sessions are scattered throughout the day, covering everything from nutrition, relaxation and first aid, with a session just for dads, too.

On night two Jamie settled in less than 15 minutes, with only one waking during the night. This time I was confident he didn’t need my help to resettle, and left him to practice his new skill.

I woke the next morning with a foggy head, dry mouth and aching boobs. After months of sleep deprivation, a sudden night of almost uninterrupted sleep - also known as the ‘Day Three Hangover’ - is inflicted on many mums.

But Jamie’s progress continued, and by the fourth night, some of the mums arranged to meet in the communal kitchen for a ‘Tim Tam Therapy’ session. With babies asleep and no domestic duties to attend to, it was a rare moment for us all to vent, share and bond over our separate situations. Many of us have kept in touch via Facebook, where we cheer and console each other through life back in the real world.

I returned home from sleep school feeling confident, rested and ready to start enjoying some quality time with my husband and son again. The bubble of sleep school may only have been brief, but its affects will forever be felt by my family.

One of four techniques are practiced at EBFC to assist baby sleep:

  • Settling in arms (zero to three months): baby is calmed or asleep before being placed in the cot.
  • Hands on settling (three to six months): baby will be placed in the cot awake, but the parent will stay with the baby and settle them in the cot.
  • Comfort settling (six months and over): baby learns to put themselves to sleep without any assistance.
  • Toddler in bed: once out of the cot this encourages toddlers to sleep in their own bed without a parent being with them.

Have you been to sleep school? Share your experience in the comments below.

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